Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with then- U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on Sept. 5, 2016, in the midst of last year’s presidential race. Alexei Druzhinin/AP
President Trump took to Twitter to question his predecessor’s judgment and actions — at the end of a week characterized by a steady drumbeat of questions about how and when the Obama administration chose to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Why no action?,” the president asked in the first of two tweets Saturday evening that suggested the Obama administration didn’t do enough — and soon enough — to stop Russia last year.
Since Wednesday the Obama administration’s response has increasingly come under scrutiny in dueling congressional hearings held by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in a bombshell report by the Washington Post and in the disclosure of correspondence between two Democratic senators last fall and Obama’s State Department first reported on by BuzzFeed.
In the final days of the presidential campaign last year, two Democratic senators asked President Obama to take action against Russia for its election meddling.
“Such attacks cannot be tolerated and the United States must take immediate measures to ensure that those responsible are held to account,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., wrote in a letter to Obama dated Nov. 1, 2016, just a week before Election Day.
After referencing the hacking and disclosure of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and other people and organizations aligned with the Democratic Party, Cardin and Feinstein went on to stress to Obama the importance of protecting the electoral process:
“The seminal event in a functioning democracy is an election, and the international implications of the results of a U.S. election are far reaching. Russia’s actions threaten to undermine our democratic process. Our electoral infrastructure is strong, but it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our institutions are protected. A cyberattack on our electoral process or any part of our critical political, economic, or military infrastructure is a hostile action that must be countered.”
The senators suggested that the assets of individuals found to have been involved in the Russian interference be frozen. Additionally, they counseled Obama to consider “expanding the use of secondary sanctions” and “taking proportional cyber responses beyond sanctions that would shine a direct spotlight on those responsible for the cyberattacks.” They also told Obama that the administration should indict those responsible in U.S. courts.
The State Department wrote back to the lawmakers a month later, after Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss to Donald Trump.
“As we have made clear to the Russian government and others, we will not tolerate attempts to interfere with the U.S. democratic process, and we will take action to protect our interests, including in cyberspace, and we will do so at a time and place of our choosing,” the Obama administration told the two senators.
The correspondence, reported on by BuzzFeed Friday, was part of a release of government records sought by Operation 45, a transparency project, in the course of Freedom of Information Act litigation filed against several U.S. intelligence agencies. Operation 45 “is dedicated to ensuring transparency and accountability for the Administration of Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States,” the project’s website says.
The BuzzFeed report about the letters came the same day as a Washington Post report that provided a look inside the Obama administration’s response to and decision-making about Russia. The CIA notified Obama in August of last year that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the campaign to interfere in the election, according to the Post. “The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump,” the Post report says.
But it would be roughly two months — not until Oct. 7, 2016, as Feinstein and Cardin pointed out in their letter — before the Obama administration publicly declared that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the DNC and other Democratic groups. The administration did not impose sanctions on Russia until late December 2017, some five months after the CIA’s intelligence report was hand-delivered to the White House, according to the Post. (“Over that five-month interval,” the Post report says, “the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could ‘crater’ the Russian economy.”)
The U.S. intelligence community’s declassified report about the election interference was not made available to the public until early January 2017. Finally, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security did not designate state election systems as “critical infrastructure,” entitling states to seek federal help with cybersecurity, until early January of this year as well.
On Wednesday, Jeh Johnson, who was Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security during last year’s election, was asked by members of Congress about the timing of the administration’s response — specifically why the voting public was not informed about what Russia was up to until the fall of 2017.
One of the candidates, Johnson said, not naming but clearly referring to Donald Trump, “was predicting that the election was going to be rigged,” Johnson testified before the House Intelligence Committee, “and so we were concerned that by making the statement, we might in and of itself be challenging the integrity of the election process.” Johnson also told the top Democrat on the committee that he had been concerned last year that he would be criticized “for perhaps taking sides” in an ongoing election if he publicly spoke out about the Russian meddling that he knew was going on.
Tony Blinken, Obama’s former national security adviser, defended the previous administration’s response Friday to CNN, saying Obama took action to protect the electoral system itself from interference by the Russians.
“We made massive efforts so they couldn’t do that,” Blinken told the cable news network. “This led to two things: President Obama issued a very stark warning to President Putin in September at the G-20 conference in China. What we saw, or thought we saw, after that, it looked like the Russians stopped their efforts. But the damage was already done.”
Trump’s tweets Saturday were not his first this week in the vein of questioning the Obama’s administration’s response. The president tweeted Thursday morning and Friday evening, apparently in response to questions faced by Johnson and the Post’s reporting.
While Trump seems to now be accepting and acknowledging that Russia interfered in the election, as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman pointed out, also on Twitter on Friday night, Trump has previously called Russian election interference a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to explain Clinton’s loss:
Speaking to the international media this month, Putin denied that the Russian government had any role in meddling in last year’s presidential election.